European Food Summit - Master of the sea – Angel Leon

Master of the sea – Angel Leon

Ljubljana, 29. 10. 2021

There's many adjectives that can be used to describe Angel Leon: innovative, revolutionary, groundbreaking, crazy. Yes, crazy, because that’s exactly what you have to be to come up with some unheard of ideas to apply in your kitchen.

Leon, “El Chef del Mar« (Chef of the Sea), is that kind of cook. A three-Michelin-star chef, but one that will call himself a fisherman first, everything else comes after. When he speaks about sea and oceans he’s not selling yet another story on sustainability, yet another second-hand fairytale. He can deliver the story because he’s out there on the sea practically every day at dawn, scouting the depths of Bay of Cadiz with his fishing boat.

He knows the sea by heart and this is his inspiration, his raison d’etre. It also takes a lot of guts to set up a restaurant in El Puerto de Santa Maria, a town that was left in ruins after the great Spanish financial crisis. Almost a ghost town with dilapidated white houses, bleached from sun, salt and wind, overlooking Cadiz and the African coast further south.

That was in 2007. In these 14 years Leon and his team have managed not only to gain three stars and climb World’s Best 50 Restaurant list in this place, far from everything, far from the international foodie route, they have also managed to revitalize the town and explore sea and its underwater bounties in ways never seen before. Showcasing what can be done with fish considered third-rate, with invasive crab, with deep water algae or sea hare roe. We use only 20% of marine flora and fauna and Leon’s take is - there's a whole submarine world to explore – and he’s more than willing to single-handily raise that ratio.

First there was the marine charcuterie – lardo, pancetta, mortadella, salami, prosciutto … But made of fish. Leon’s goal was both to show the versatility of seafood and play with perceptions (and tastes) of diners. Is it a veal shank? No, it’s tuna shin, prepared in a way you would prepare a big chunk of succulent meat. Serve it with some truffles and mashed potato and you’d be surprised how many hard-core carnivores would mistake it for meat.

Then there was plankton. Nowadays you might get served a shiny green plate of risotto in restaurants stretching from Italy to Slovenia, but it was Angel Leon who first figured out how to actually eat these microscopic marine drifters. Because, as it turns out, plankton, in its base form, isn’t exactly edible.

And it took Leon a hospital stay and then plenty of research and work with pharmaceutical companies until he was able to extract plankton spores that are now being raised and grown in controlled environment of the laboratory, then packed into neat little “Angel Leon, Aponiente” stamped boxes and sent to speciality stores and restaurants around the world.

At Aponiente and its casual place downtown, called Taberna del Chef del Mar, you get served plankton in all kinds of forms these days, it’s in the creamy risotto, Leon’s signature from the old days, it’s infused in olive oil, it’s used as a filling paste for fluffy bread rolls and even whipped with cream for a sea-tasting dessert.

He also came up with a visually stunning, otherworldly cooking-in-salt technique that engulfs the sea creature in front of you, be it goose barnacles or sole, with mesmerizing snow-flaky iodine crystals. He found that micro-algae could sequester the impurities of cloudy kitchen stocks the same way an egg white does in classical French cooking. And now he wants to harvest “marine rice”, underwater marine cereal that he claims is the new super food that can save the planet.

You see, Aponiente, set in a former 19th-century tidal flour mill next to salt marshes in an impressive looking refurbished structure, is really so much more than “just” a fine dining restaurant. And it’s not just a team of cooks, there are scientists and biologists involved with the project, they are collaborating with several research centers and universities to delve deeper into the marine biology science.

So, yes, Aponiente is a beautiful, elegant, spacious restaurant with impeccable service and memorable menu, but it’s also a laboratory, a creative think-tank, a research center, a multi-disciplinary polygon that transcends dining venue, that even transcends dining per se and really aims to change the planet, no matter how corny it sounds.    

Written by: Kaja Sajovic